The wait can seem unbearable when you need help. Across the country, the average emergency room wait time is now 222 minutes — that's 3 hours, 42 minutes.
Hospitals in Arizona (4 hours, 57 minutes), Maryland (4 hours, 7 minutes), Utah (4 hours, 5 minutes), New York (3 hours, 58 minutes), and Florida (3 hours, 57 minutes) are among the worst, with wait times near or exceeding four hours.
"The dangers are that the person's condition may escalate in the waiting time in the ER," says Carol Haraden with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.
But at Spectrum HealthHospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., where they often run at 105 percent capacity, they've changed that with a massive ER expansion and more staff.
Patients are now color-coded and fast-trackedon an elaborate computer system, with the wait time from door-to-doctor cut from eight hours to just 23 minutes.
Patients like 12-year-old Noel Bricault, who walked in at 4:02. At 4:28 she was with a resident who ordered tests. By 4:43, 40 minutes after arriving, an attending physician was considering mono or strep throat.
ER Director Jim Schweigert says it's all about managing the entire hospital flow — from the ER to the operating room to discharge.
"And that's the real challenge," he says, "to try to time that so you can run at the highest capacity without having to make people wait."
At Silver Cross Hospital in Joliet, Ill., the fast-track systemincludes restaurant-type pagers for patients and a goal.
"30 minutes from the time you reach the door to the time you're seeing a doctor," says Silver Cross Hospital's Geoffrey Tryon.
And streamlining the process extends beyond the ER.
At Boston's Beth Israel/Deaconess Medical Center, patients no longer have to wait for test results. They simply log on to a secure Web site to check first-hand their triglycerides and cholesterol.
Back in Grand Rapids, where the goal is to keep the waiting room empty, there's a renewed appreciation for truly watching the clock.
"It makes me feel like they care," says patient Greg Davenport.